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STATE AFFAIRS: Illinois higher education - from best to bleakest

In 2000, a national group that knows about such things declared Illinois to have the best higher education offerings among the states for quality and affordability. Today, in contrast, nearly half all Illinois high school grads headed to college flee to institutions out of state. This can be turned around, but not without a renewed collaboration among state leadership on affordability, focus and understanding of the new realities.

Some background. Though not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, every youngster who can benefit needs post-high school training and education. To meet these needs for three-quarters of a million of our citizens, Illinois offers four “layers” of higher education.

There are graduate research universities (think University of Illinois) and teaching universities (such as Illinois State University). And private colleges (e.g., Northwestern and Knox, which in total educate more four-year college students than the publics), and community colleges, which blanket the state. There are also for-profit colleges, which range from good to rip-offs.

There was dramatic growth and lavish spending on higher education and student financial aid post-World War II up to the 1980s, when student numbers boomed and the state had some money.

In recent decades, Medicaid (health care for the poor) spending and commitments to state pensions have squeezed higher ed support in Illinois. In 1978, Illinois devoted 10 percent of all state spending to higher education; in 2014 (the latest year of a completed, real state budget), the percentage for our colleges had shrunk to 3 percent. In the same time frame, the spending pie slice for Medicaid grew from a 12 to 23 percent, and for pensions, from 3 to 11 percent. The 2014 budget had more real money in it than in 1978, but the relative slice changes are dramatic reflections of changed, maybe forced priorities.

Also, appreciate that colleges have their own objectives, which are often different from the best interests of the larger society—it is the nature of human organizations to aspire to be bigger and better, especially when compared to their peer groups.

For example, the University of Illinois, among the highest-ranked research institutions in the world, has been crying in anguish over the sharp reduction in its state funding over the past decade, which is true and lamentable.

But now the U. of I. is planning another, new public law school in Chicago, as if we don’t already have enough law schools and lawyers.

Because of reduced state spending for higher ed in recent years, Illinois public universities jacked up their tuition, making our student costs among the highest in the nation.

This made it possible for top universities in neighboring states, themselves hungry for students from a shrinking pool of high school graduates, to offer lower tuitions than at our schools. And so, many of our best and brightest are in classrooms in Iowa, Indiana and elsewhere, probably never to return.

In addition to a shrinking pool of Illinois high school graduates in coming years, more students are benefiting from dual-credit college courses during high school years, plus the availability of online course offerings. This will reduce demand for spaces in a higher education system that is already overbuilt.

Overseeing all this is the Illinois Board of Higher Education, created in 1961 by the legislature to constrain the desires of institutions to be all things to all people.

Once a respected agency, the IBHE is now a toothless tiger, with board members formally representing not the public but higher education interest groups. For example, the president of Western Illinois University is a member of this board, which oversees his own institution.

To their credit, some university leaders and lawmakers are belatedly addressing the problems. Tuitions levels are being frozen, and more financial aid is being scrounged for students, though there is much more to do.

The IBHE should be completely revamped: Throw off all the higher ed representatives with their vested interests. Replace them with highly successful, totally independent civic and business leaders who want the best, not necessarily the most, for our colleges, students and the public.

And reinvigorate the IBHE authority and credibility to reject new programs of low value to the larger society, like the new public university law school in Chicago.

Our higher education system can be among the best again, though it won’t be easy or painless.

JIM NOWLAN is a former Illinois legislator, agency director and aide to three governors. He also was lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Nowlan can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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